Keaton Boats

History of Keaton Boats

Disclaimer: The accuracy of the information provide below is based  on conversations  with
Jack Keaton and was provided to the best of his recollection as well as information gathered from
other people and sources.
If anyone has any additional information to add or to correct the information below  please
contact me at keatonboat1@yahoo.com

June 28, 2010 - Updated 18-J section with information about the fuel tanks
July 13, 2010 - Updated information in 18-J section about number of 18-J's made
and about the new mold
Sept. 1, 2010 - Updated number of Tournament boats made to 16 and date of
last one to 1989
Feb. 16, 2011 - Updated 18-J section to note that there was one boat built by Gary
at Classic-Craft with a 2000 build/model year hull id. The owner bought this
boat new from Gary in May 2001
June 25, 2012 - Updated 18-J section to note difference in transoms between 1972 and early 1973.
Updated Misc. section to show pictures of a Keaton dune buggy and information about
three drift boats that Jack made
July 29, 2013 - Updated Misc section on how the fiberglass hulls were made

1959-1972 First Generation Inboard Utility (Bonanza 17):
 

Jack began building inboard runabouts with the Keaton name in Sacramento, Ca. in 1959.  These inboards were made until 1972. When Jack got into the business he really liked the Higgins boat. Jack took many measurements of a Higgins runabout and set about making the first Keaton inboard incorporating many of his own design improvements.  These boats were 17' 3"long.  The hull mold was a two-piece mold which was bolted together to form the hull mold.  Due to a widening of the seam in this mold you may see what appears to be a tape line on the Utility hulls. During the making of the utility hull tape was actually used to keep the gelcoat from oozing out the seam.

The first 15 boats had a wood deck that was fiberglassed over. Once Jack felt that he had the design that he wanted he then made a mold of the deck and from that point they were completely fiberglass.

Below is the specifications from one of the Utility brochures advertising the Keaton Utility.


Inboard Brochure with Specs


A variety of engines were used during this period. Early on during the first 3 years Jack used the 348 Chevy. He also used the 409 Chevy,  312 Ford Interceptor and 383 Chrysler (a favorite of Jack's). When the Oldsmobile 455 came out in 1968 a company called Aero Marine began using them. Since the price was attractive Jack bought two of them and installed them in a utility. One went into  a boat shipped to Hawaii and the other was sold locally. Those were the only 455's installed by Jack. Any other utility with a 455 was installed by someone else. Depending upon whom ultimately finished the boat a variety of other engines may have been installed.  I believe all them probably used the Borg-Warner velvet drive transmission.

Interestingly, in most cases the 383 Chrysler engines were those Jack purchased from wrecking yards and converted to marine use.  The only stipulation Jack had was that they had to have less than 20,000 miles on the engine.

Depending upon what gauge package the owner wanted or what engine was used (some marine engines came with gauges) there were a number of  dash variations. Some were flat, others may have a large indent on one side with a narrow indent for the gauge layout while others had a large indent on both sides connected with a narrow indent for the remaining gauges.  I've also seen a couple of 1960-61 boats that have a wood dash as opposed to the fiberglass dash.

Early Keaton utilities had wood spray rails. Beginning in 1965 they were molded in to the mold and the wood rails discontinued.

Jack sold a number of hulls during the period from 1959 to 1972. Approximately, 7 out of 10 units sold were hulls and not finished boats! These "base" models would normally include the hull, underwater running gear, gas tank and steering.   These unfinished hulls were owner-builder boats and in most cases were completed (engine and maybe interior added) by the person who bought the hull.

Keaton boats have a very popular following here in California, but boats are located in Oregon and Washington. Also, in the 1960's Jack shipped two Utilities to Paul Boel at the Tivoli Gardens Ski Club in Michigan.

Lloyd Beam/Art Smrekar Boat Enterprises:
During the early 60's a relationship was struck up between Art Smrekar and Jack Keaton.  Art was from the SF Bay Area and was a local and national water ski champion. He was 3 time USA National Champion, 6 time Western Regional Champion and 3 time USA National Record holder.

Art tells a great story about his relationship with Keaton boats and how he came to sell Keaton hulls and boats.  For the entire story in Art's words click here.

Primarily, Art and Lloyd  ran a shop in Richmond, Ca. that sold the Keaton Utility - called the Bonanza 17 as well as offering the Keaton v-drive.  Art and Lloyd would either completely outfit a Keaton hull or would sell just the hull with the strut and holes bored.  A standard model ready to go with a 289c.i.  210 H.P. Interceptor engine would sell for around $3495.00 and up.  A hull would sell for $1495.00.  The fully finished customized boats normally had a front facing bench seat and a spun aluminum ski pylon. They may not have had a back seat.  Art and Lloyd would also sell a boat with either the 390c.i Interceptor or the Ford 427.

Below is one of their brochures:

Brochure courtesy of Art Smrekar

Here is one of their Customer Letters

Here is a front and back image of their postcards:


A number of these boats would then end up in the local water ski clubs.  These boats may have a label on the dash identifying them as being "Customized by Lloyd and Arts Boat Ent."


and they may have this label showing  the slalom speeds.


Utility Hull ID Information:
Keaton fully finished turnkey boats  normally have a Hull ID beginning with KH.  (The "K" stood for Keaton and the "H" stood for Hopkinson referring to Al Hopkinson who assisted Jack during this period. 

Example of a Keaton Utility Hull ID would be KH6420. 
K=Keaton
H=Hopkinson
64=Year of Manufacture
20=20th boat made that year

The location of the Hull ID on a Keaton fully finished boat is on the starboard stringer between mid-engine and front floor (although I've been told by some owners that their tag is on the port side just about where the driver sits). It was stamped on an aluminum counter moulding  plate nailed to the stringer with drive nails. Here is a picture of the Hull Id tag:

The Hull ID on the one Lloyd and Art boat had a Hull ID that was 5 numerical digits long. Example is 02266.  There was no manufacture prefix on the paperwork, nor was I able to find a Hull ID tag anywhere on the boat and not in the location where Jack placed his Hull ID tag. Keaton was listed as the builder on the boat's paperwork.

I've come across two boats, both of which are 1963 boats, that had a different 2-letter prefix of "SF". Both of these boats  still list "Keaton" as the builder.

There are also Keaton boats out there  that appear to carry a Hull Identification Number (HIN) beginning with CFZ and list "Keaton" as the builder on the registration. These boats are  Keaton built hulls, but may not have been boats finished off by Jack since, as noted above, about 7 of 10 units he sold were not a completely finished boat, however Jack has noted that he did provide a hull ID with every finished boat he completed.  Based on what I can find,  according to the California DMV Agents Handbook Section 2.040, this would indicate a California issued Hull Identification Number (HIN) for a homemade vessel  or a vessel without an established  identification number.  Also, according to the USCG Manufacturer Identification Code (MIC) database a manufacturer hull id beginning with CFZ refers to "California Homemade Boats" and is the MIC for a state issued HIN. 

These Keaton boats with the CFZ hull ID don't appear to be entirely consistent with the 12-digit schemes used on or after Nov. 1, 1972, although some aspects of these HID's such as the CFZ abbreviation for a California "home built" boat and date of certification are evident with these Keaton boats. I have no idea how California DMV assigned the remainder of the hull ID.  This link explaining the 12-digit HIN schemes also notes in the last paragraph that

      "Individuals building boats for their own use and not for the 
       purposes of sale are what are referred to as "backyard boat
       builders". They must obtain a 12 character HIN from their State
       boating agency. The Manufacturer Identification Code at the
       beginning of the HIN for a "home built" boat is an abbreviation
       for the State followed by a "Z" which indicates that it is a State
       identification."

If anyone has any additional information or corrections regarding the CFZ HID's assigned between 1959 and 1972 please let me know.

Jack sells mold after 1972:
Jack sold the mold after 1972 and the mold is believed to have changed hands a number of times. There was a fellow  that made boats from the Keaton mold from around 1973 until the late 70's. The company name may have been Mastercraft Plastic Corporation of Sacramento.  It is believed the owner was Ted Horning. Apparently, a few were made with one actually burning to the waterline the first time out. Mastercraft Plastics apparently went out of business in 1982. Also, the name on the title may say "Classic" as the manufacturer. These hulls/boats were not made by Jack.  Also, there were a couple of other hulls made around 1980 and sold. Again, these hulls were not made by Keaton, although the hulls were made from the Keaton mold.

Keaton Utility is copied:
There were some copies made of the Keaton Utility. A person made a copy of a Keaton hull and created a mold from this. He was calling these Keaton's. There were at least four boats that were made from a copy of the inboard boat.  They may say "AR" on the hull id and the builder on the registration may say  "Arena". These are not Keaton boats and appear to be NOT made from the original Keaton made mold.

1962-1965 Keaton V-drive Race Boat:

Between 1962 and 1965 Keaton made a V-drive race boat.  It appears there may have been only 11 of these boats made.

Bob Dowling who owns a 1965 Keaton V-drive has done a lot of research on these boats. You can read an article about his boat in Hot Boat magazine by clicking here.

Also, if anyone has any information on the race history of these boats please contact me at keatonboat1@yahoo.com

The following information is provided courtesy of Bob Dowling. Thanks Bob.

Jack Keaton and the v-drive boat.
By Bob Dowling

I have done some research into this subject and from what I have found concluded that Jack was not into race boats (which early v-drives were primarily used for), but being a good business man, he would build what ever the costumer wanted as long as it was sound and reasonable.
Back around 1960 a member of the Stockton Water Ski Club wanted to go boat racing and asked Jack to build him a v-drive type marathon boat. For a reason still not determined, a v-drive from the club was used as a “plug” for the boat mold. The boat was a 1956 all wood Mandella which was a successful marathon boat at the time. After talking to Jack I was left with the impression that a considerable amount of “tweeking” took place within the mold before the first hull was produced.
Eleven hulls were made from this mold before it was destroyed in a shop fire around 1965. (NOTE: According to Jack Keaton this fire did not occur in his shop).  My hull was the second or third produced and was rigged by Jack. In those days it was not unusual to purchase a hull as a “stage one” which was a bare hull with only the prop shaft and strut installed. The new owner would than finish rigging the boat. I credit Jack as the first to use of my boat. The following five owners were members of the Stockton Water Ski Club except for one. It was my turn to own the boat in 1983. By this time the boat was pretty well used and a complete rebuild was in order. 640 hours later, it is ready for another “do over”.
To date I have found five of the eleven hulls that are siblings to mine. I would like to find the other six. The one that Jack remembers in Sacramento is among the five, but I have not seen the boat for some time.
My boat was first powered by a Packard V8, then a 430 Lincoln, 454 Chevy, 427 Chevy, & presently a 381 Chevy truck engine. I still have the 430 Lincoln and am planning to reinstall it. I try to build the engines using vintage parts as would have been available in the year the boat was rigged. Vintage induction or ignition systems always get my attention.
My Keaton came with a fixed cavitation plate. This plate attaches to the transom at the water level and allows for “rocker’ or “hook” to be set in the hull for better planning and “set”. Gut drive boats do not respond to this system because the engine is in the center of the boat and the hull rides more forward in the water. The idea of the v-drive system is to flatten the prop shaft from the gut drive 15 degrees to 9 degrees. This allows more of the prop to push forward rather than up. This is why the IO is the top propulsion now because
you can trim to 0 degrees with 100 % of the prop pushing forward. The engine is moved aft so that the planning hull will ride on the last third or fourth of the hull length. Less boat in the water the more speed.
The fixed plate was replaced with an adjustable type so the set of the plate cam be made on the fly to meet the water conditions. With the last engine installation a Borg Warner velvet drive transmission was added. Most v-drives have only an “in-out” where you start and warm up out of gear, shut off the engine, pull it into gear and then start in gear. You had better be ready to GO! I thought I was installing the trans. to have a reverse, but I have found that the trans. allows you to have breaks, which are really handy.

V-drive race history:

The following is provided courtesy of Jack Keaton:

"Their is a short but exciting history on the  'V-Drive boat.' It was built for racing - especially at Clear Lake. It was raced from 1962 to 1964 with my help.  Some owners continued racing. The boat was extremely fast, perhaps too fast for the design. The bottom design I called a 'saucer' shape. It was to 'skip' like a rock. However this made it very unstable.  I did not anticipate the power to be used. The first two owners had Joe Bianchini build their engines. They were fuel injected Chryslers. The owners were  Joe Balcao of Stockton and Tom Martin of Sacramento. Tom's boat  "Response" won sixteen consecutive races in 1963. I have not been able to  reach Tom. I talked to Joe Balcao by phone. He has a custom built hull I built for him in 1965. It is cut down about 3-4 inches. It has a blonde color wooden deck. It has never been run. (NOTE: According to Drake Balcao the boat was actually built between 1963 and 1964 and was raced. This article in the August 7, 1964 Stockton Record supports this.)  No motor or seats. It is for sale.
Joe Bianchini passed last December. (NOTE: According to Joe Balcao, Joe Bianchini died August 5, 2005)  He was an excellent engine builder.
The race people were a different group and usually did not associate with
the skiers and family boaters. Do not know why, just the way it was.
 The races at Clear Lake were very exciting.
 In late 64' during a race at the "Rendezvous Club" near Lakeport, the two lead boats Tom Martin's and Carl Wishek's  hit a large wake. They both shot in the
air, spun, and hit the water upside down. Tom's driver Hayes Humpries and
Carl were taken to the hospital for minor injuries.
That ended the racing for me."                             Jack

Joe and Drake Balcao provided a nice write up with a lot of good information, articles and pictures about V-Drive boat racing and the Keaton V-drive referenced above that Joe actually raced.  Joe was also an accomplished water skier as well. To read about Joe please go here

1972-2000* Keaton 18-J 18' Jet - Jack moves into the jet age:

Jack began making the first full fiberglass jet boat model 18-J in 1972.  Engines used were the 455 Olds, then later 460 Fords and 454 Chevy's were used. Also, some were made with the Indmar 350 Chevy. There was a review in Powerboat Magazine of the 350 powered 18-J.  There was at least one boat, the second 18-J made, that came with a Pontiac 400 GTO motor. A majority are believed to have been made with the Berkeley  12JE pump with an A impeller, although  there are a few that were sold with the Berkeley JF pump that had an adjustable nozzle.
Also, all the 1972 and the first 2-3 boats built in 1973 have a flat transom and JC pump. However, it was felt the JE pump was a better alternative which required the transom to be modified to have a recessed portion to support the use of the JE pump.

It is believed that perhaps 350 (Updated 7/13/10 After counting the hull ids from the blackboard it appears the number may be closer to 225) or so 18-J's were made, but that is only a rough guess based upon the belief  20 or so boats were made per year (although we know that number fluctuated due to demand and market conditions). It would take Jack 1 week to build an 18-J from start to finish. The most that were made in any one year was 1978 in which 28 were made. This was after the drought years of 1976-77 and there was once again a demand for boats.

In late1977 Jack made new 18-J molds.  The dash and engine cover were changed as the dash went from a flat dash to a curved dash and the scoop on the engine cover was raised to accommodate the Ford 460 motor. Also, the bottom was pushed down to create a rocker in the bottom.  According to Jack, "The bottom was pushed down to create a rocker. The rocker seemed to lift the boat faster and higher in the water."

 Updated 07/13/10: Basically, in the earlier models it was found that when the fiberglassed cured it would shrink up and would be a bit concave. When Jack redid the molds he pushed the bottom down to account for the shrinkage. Although, it appears that most of the concave of the previous mold was taken out there is still a slight bit of concave to the hull, but if you compare side by side running 18-J's, one with the early mold and one with the new mold you will see that that the boat built with the newer mold appears to have less of the hull riding in the water.

Up until 1978 you could get a boat in 30 different metal flake colors. After 1978 Jack went away from the metal flake-colored boats and built primarily white boats. 

In 1981 Jack took an 18-J down to Lake Mead for the Powerboat Magazines performance trials.  There were around 26 boats lined up including those from Art Carlson of Carlson High Performance Boats & Glastron fame. 
The 18-J was awarded Powerboat Magazine 1981 and 1982 Performance Jet Boat of the Year.


Powerboat Magazine Award for Product Excellence
Outstanding Jet Drive Performance Keaton 18' Jet

The 18-J was made by Jack through 1994.

Keaton Boats sold in 1995:
Note: The following information was provided by one of the people who purchased Keaton Boats in 1995:


In the fall of 1994 Jack was visited by two local people who were interested in a joint-venture operation to build a tournament style boat they had designed. After visiting with Jack on two separate occasions they were told Jack did not want to be part of a joint venture, but was open to selling his business. After viewing Jack's boats and skiing behind an 18-J they entered into an agreement to purchase Keaton Boats. By January 1995 they had completed the purchase agreement and began production of the 18-J as Jack had built it.

Through the summer of 1995 they produced 6-8 of Jack's version and made notes of all the things they could do to make the boat a little more modern, but keep the classic look and style of the Keaton.

In September of 1995 they hit the International Boat Show in Chicago and found many new options for the boat (i.e. gauges, tail lights for the trailer, windshield, steering column, glove boxes, etc.).

From September 1995 to January 1996 they re-tooled the hull and deck. The deck was flatter in the windshield area to accept the new windshield which was made for a Sunbird boat. The hull needed some work on the port side as the side bowed out more on the left than the right. This made installing the deck very difficult. The bottom was not changed except cleaning up the strakes, chips and other flaws that develop from old molds.

The deck was changed mostly at the dash for the windshield, glove box, intake air, gauges and steering. The engine cover was enlarged and raised to incorporate the bigger exhaust manifolds coming on all the engines. The lines on the deck (closed bow) remained the same. They also widened the bucket seats, added seat slides and swivels, and an ice chest under the rear seat. They also added dividers in the engine compartment for better storage and designed the open bow jump seat.

Check out the brochure in the Reference section of the website.


From January 1996 through April 1996 they built stock boats and hit every major California show with the new models (open and closed bow) ready for things to take off. The production schedule could handle about 20 boats a year. A few dealers were set up and consignment boats deployed. Sales never took off and although everyone liked the boat and design, the majority of buyers were wanting tournament style inboards and not jets.

Contributing to this was the announcement that Berkeley Pump was closing their doors and that Legend Pump had taken all their people and designs. The last few "E" pumps were bought as that is the style the 18-J's were designed to use. At the time Legend was designing but not yet building an "E" pump and the one they were would require serious modifications to the design of the Keaton hull and they were still a year away from producing this pump.

Based on these factors (slow sales, uncertainty over the pump, etc.) the decision was made to sell the business. Eliminator Boats wanted the boat, but was unwilling to pay for it. By December 1, 1996 the business was turned back over to Jack.

In all, there were approximately 22 boats made with about 13 closed deck boats (combination of the original deck and re-tooled closed deck) and 9 Open-bow boats. Also, only 1 20' Tournament boat was made. This boat was a great looking boat with classic lines, but apparently people were wanting the new style MB Sports, Centurion, MasterCraft look.

Recently, it appears that at least two 18-J's made or finished  by Jack. The build date one one of the Hull ID's says it was built in Oct of 1997, however the model year shows that it was a 1998 model year boat. So, I guess if you go by model year the boat was 1998, but it was  believed to have been completed in 1997. There are pictures of these last two boats in the 18-J Gallery.

*Updated 2/16/11:  There appears to be one last 18-J that was built by Gary at
Classic-Craft. The boat hull id has a 2000 build/model year date, however the owner bought it new from Gary in May 2001.  This does appear to be the last 18-J out of the molds.

A word about the fuel tanks (added 6/28/10):
Up through the late 1980's 18-J's were made with fiberglass fuel tanks that were fiber-glassed into the bow of the boat. According to Jack in the mid-1980's issues with the fuel tanks started showing up. Apparently, the tank was deteriorating due to the fuel blends now being used and started to leak. Realizing what was occurring they tried coating the inside of the tank with coating liners such as epoxy, etc. However, after some period of time it was realized that this wasn't working. Jack believe the phase in occurred around the 1988/89 timeframe when they started using aluminum tanks in the production of new boats. However, we know of two of the six 18-J's were originally built with fiberglass tanks so it's possible the aluminum tanks may have been phased in during the 1990 model year.

Today, if you have a Keaton with a fiberglass tank you can get it replaced with an aluminum tank that fits into the area where the original fiberglass tank was located. The original tank was about 30 gallons. The replacement aluminum tanks are 27 gallons.

18-J Hull ID:
The Keaton 18-J Hull ID will be 12 digits long beginning with KEA.   The remaining 9 digits of the Hull ID would be 5 digits for the serial number and the remaining 4 digits would be denote the date of either certification and/or manufacture date.  An example would be KEA010620576 or KEA01192D090.  In the first example this is a Hull ID prior to August 1, 1984.  The 0576 would denote a boat made in May (05) of 1976 (76). In the second Hull ID the D090 would denote a boat made in April (D), of 1990 (0) and is a 1990 model year boat (90).

The location of the Hull Id on the 18-J is in one of two places. On the earlier boats, up through 1977, the Hull ID is etched into the rub rail moulding on the starboard side of the transom. Beginning with 1978 it appears the  Hull ID was imprinted into the transom below the rub rail on the starboard side. It's possible if you have a boat that had the Hull ID etched into the rub rail and the rub rail was replaced  that the boat may not have a Hull ID. There was no secondary Hull ID location affixed to the inside of the boat.

1975-1980 18' Open Bow Keaton:

Open bow model made. These were 18' long tri-hull boats with the Olds 455, Ford 460 and at least one boat owned by Jack has a Chevrolet 350.  Also, according
Jack when the 455's ran out he built one Open Bow with an Olds 350.  It is believed that perhaps only 15-20 or so Open bows were made. 

The Open Bow Hull Id will be 12 digits long beginning with KEAOT with the "T" standing for Tri-Hull.  The schemed is the same as that of the 18-J.

The location of the Hull ID is similar to that of the 18-J.

December 1981 - 1989 18' Tournament/Barefoot Boat:

Production of 18' inboard Tournament/Barefoot began. The first boat (red boat) began production in December of 1981 and was completed in January of 1982.  Jack used this boat as his demo boat until about May of that year.  I believe there were only 16 Tournament/Barefoot boats made.   These boats came with the Indmar Chevrolet 350 engine and had a Borg-Warner velvet drive transmission.

In 1995 Jack made one 20' Tournament/Barefoot boat from a new mold. This, along with an 18-J, were taken to the Boat Show at Cal-Expo in Sacramento. The people he sold the business to noticed there wasn't a lot of attention paid to this Tournament boat and elected to focus on the 18-J's and thus no more 20' Tournament/ Barefoot boats were made.  The location of this boat is currently unknown.

The Tournament/Barefoot boat Hull ID will be 12 digits long and begin with KEAU with the "U" standing for Utility. Again, the remainder of the scheme would be the same as that shown for the 18-J. The  Hull ID is imprinted into the gel coat on the transom on the starboard side below the rub rail.

Miscellaneous Info:
(Added 6/7/10) Regarding the steering wheels Jack told me the following:

"A company called 'Aero Marine' started around the early 60's. They sold all sorts of marine hardware and parts. They manufactured steering wheels. For one reason or another they went out of business. One of the original owners 'Jack Salmon' kept the
steering wheel business and worked out of his garage. He made 30 different colors
including metal flake. I remember a wood wheel in 14" I think.
All his wheels were 3 spoke. He used stainless because of instrument interference.
He sold out to a company in Oklahoma. I have lost track of them.
The wheel company was known as 'COVICO'.
Some wheels may still exist. Pretty good history, but not much help."

(Added July 29, 2013)  Info regarding the fiberglass hull making process:

1.  The mould was highly wax with a carnuba wax.
2. The metalflake was added to the clear gelcoat, catalized and sprayed. You would wait until the gelcoat is tacky - maybe 30-45 minutes before shooting in the fiberglass cloth resin.
2. Jack used a chopper gun to spray in the fiberglass cloth along with the B resin then finished
with the A resin. At this point you can go as thick as you want.
3. Let the hull set up for no less than 6 days and then pop it out and you have yourself a hull

It took a little over 1 week to build an 18J

Other interesting tidbits:
 Jack was also into motorcycles and would race those back in they day.

An interesting side note is that from 1965 until around 1970 Jack  made dune buggies. Again, not sure how many were made.
 

 Jack is also an avid fly fisherman and he made 8' and 10'  fly-fishing prams.  Here is one of his brochures. 

Also, around 1985 Jack made 3 drift boats.  The one shown below with a well was built to use the little outboard motor. The first one built used oars and the third one built had a little 6 inch jet.